Bread making is something I have always wanted to do, but apart from the odd foray into buying a bag of ready-mixed flour for baking rolls, I have never really ventured there. I always assumed (never assume!) that making bread is too fiddly, too difficult, too complicated. I now know that it isn’t!
I am originally from Germany, where bread is taken very, very seriously; so seriously, in fact, that the UNESCO commission of the country declared the hundred of kinds of bread an ‘intangible cultural heritage’. When we first moved to the UK over 30 years ago I was not impressed with the choices of bread on the bakery and supermarket shelves – there was white bread and there was brown (wholemeal) bread, either sliced or unsliced. Oh, and toast and maybe soda bread. Maybe that is a bit harsh with hindsight, but every time we went home to Germany we loaded the car with bread to stick in the freezer on our return to London. I always joked that I missed bread more than my family (I didn’t).
When PAUL, a traditional French family bakery & patisserie with roots going back to the 19th century, opened their first shop in Covent Garden in 2000 I was thrilled. Freshly baked continental bread had arrived. And I was obviously not alone in my delight; in the early days a queue out of the door was not an unfamiliar sight. Now, of course, it is somewhat easier to buy ‘proper’ bread, but one thing that hasn’t changed is the quality of the breads at PAUL, so it is still one of my go to places.
What you might not know is, that PAUL also offers bread making master classes at three of their London locations (Covent Garden, Bankside and Tower 42 in the City, though the latter is for group bookings only) and I went along to one at their Covent Garden branch last Tuesday. The number of participants and potential master bakers is limited to seven (10 at Tower 42), and in my group we had people from the UK, Hungary, Hong Kong, India and Germany, all with one thing in common – we all loved bread and wanted to learn how to make it. After meeting in the restaurant on the ground floor, Richard, our instructor, took us downstairs to the kitchen where the ingredients for our dough had already been weighed and laid out for us on the stainless steel counters. Richard gave a short introductory talk on PAUL and the art of making bread, but from then on it was hands on – literally – mixing, kneading, shaping with three different kinds of dough – plain (for pain ancien), multi seed and two olives. It does get messy, but that is part of the fun. We learned about different kinds of flour, the difference between yeast and sourdough, between French bread and UK bread, proving and the chemistry of fermentation, tips and tricks of the trade, best practice for baking bread at home so you end up with loaves that not only taste fantastic but also look like they come straight from a bakery. The course was completely interactive, with Richard patiently answering all our questions and giving a helping hand. It is advertised to last 2 ½ hours, but ours was more than 3 hours and at no point did I feel we were being rushed.
After pushing our loaves into the big industrial ovens using wooden paddles (like pros), we went back upstairs to the restaurant to await the results. We were treated to generous cheese and charcuterie platters, different kind of breads from the bakery and red and white wine. We also had a chance to have a chat with our fellow bakers. When Richard reappeared after half an hour or so, he brought us freshly baked loaves of ‘our’ bread, still warm and smelling delicious and even though we were already stuffed, we couldn’t resist trying it. They all tasted wonderful, but the multi seed bread was for most of us the ‘winner’.
What else is included in the course, apart from professional instructions and expert coaching? You get a welcome drink, all ingredients for making your own dough (which you then take home with you at the end of the evening), a limited edition PAUL apron (I still managed to get dough and flour all over me, so you might not want to wear your best clothes), a certificate, a folder with recipes and hints & tips, a PAUL Sac à Pain that will keep your bread fresh, food & drink and all the breads baked on the night get divided up between the participants (I left with five!). We also got our own sourdough culture to take home, which I have called PAUL and it is now living in my fridge, waiting to be fed and used every week.
I love to bake, as you know from the many cake and biscuit recipes I have posted, but bread making is in a different league. Bread making will be my new favourite pastime from now on; in fact more than a pastime, I think it’s a life skill.
I know I can buy delicious fresh bread over the counter, so why do I bother to make it myself? Well, here are my top reasons:
- I know exactly what goes into my bread (and what doesn’t)
- I can experiment and get the exact bread I have always been craving – use your imagination and cheese, herbs, seeds, nuts, bacon, chilli,……….
- I have fresh warm bread when I want it, without having to leave the house
- The sense of accomplishment is tremendous – to make something so nutritious and delicious from just four simple ingredients is a little miracle
- I can impress my friends (it works!)
- It’s therapeutic. Next time you feel bad or angry about something, take it out on some dough and re-channel your energy into something positive
My thanks to PAUL and especially Richard, who made this course such a rewarding experience.
Who is this course for? Anybody with an interest in baking and cooking, people who want to have a go at being self-sufficient and anybody else who wants to learn a new skill. This course would also make a wonderful present for somebody’s birthday or for Christmas or an excellent gift to a couple for their wedding or an anniversary. Gift certificates are available.